23 May 2023 at 9:55 am
On 23 May 2023 a coalition of environmental justice organisations, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), will appear in another High Court hearing in the ongoing eight-year legal battle to prevent coal mining in a Protected Area and Strategic Water Source Area near Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga.
The application, to be heard in the Mbombela High Court, is a review of the 2021 decision taken by the MEC for Agriculture, Rural Development, Land and Environmental Affairs, Mpumalanga to revoke the protected area status of a large part of the Mabola Protected Environment to enable a new coal mine to go ahead.
The Mabola coalition seeks to have the decision overturned on grounds that it was unlawful, biased and erodes protection for an area that is ecologically sensitive and economically important as a strategic water source area for South Africa as a whole. Read the Coalition’s statement on the MEC’s decision here.
The MEC’s decision followed the Coalition’s successful challenge of the permission previously given for the mine by the former Ministers of Environmental Affairs and Minerals, the late Edna Molewa and Mosebenzi Zwane.
That challenge resulted in the High Court setting aside those permissions as unlawful and awarding punitive costs against the MEC and the Ministers. The court found that there was no justification for their lack of transparency, and departure from procedures required by law. Four attempts by the mining company to challenge the High Court decision failed, with a full bench of the High Court, the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), the President of the SCA, and ultimately the Constitutional Court, leaving the Coalition’s judgment intact.
In an apparent attempt to circumvent those judgments and the Protected Areas Act itself, the MEC revoked protection for a large portion of the protected environment to push through a new coal mine inside Mabola.
Protecting water resources for future generations
The Mabola coalition seeks to protect the area’s water resources from the ravages of coal mining. This is important as the area forms part of the Enkangala-Drakensburg Strategic Water Source Area – one of South Africa’s 22 strategic water source areas (SWSA). These SWSAs supply water to South Africa’s largest urban centres and agricultural areas and support downstream economies and ecosystems. The Enkangala-Drakensberg Strategic Water Source Area specifically supports Gauteng’s economic hub of Johannesburg and Tshwane as well as various towns and agricultural regions in Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State. Compromising this SWSA will have devastating consequences for the country.
Safeguarding the integrity of the Mabola Protected Environment
The Mabola Protected Environment near Wakkerstroom was declared under the Protected Areas Act in 2014. This followed years of extensive research, planning and consultation by a number of government agencies, including the then Department of Environmental Affairs, the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), the Water Research Commission and the Mpumalanga Tourism & Parks Agency.
That declaration gave formal protection to this area.
The MEC’s decision to exclude the properties undermines South Africa’s existing protected area network as well as South Africa’s dedicated efforts to expand our country’s protected area network. The exclusion of the properties sets a dangerous precedent for the withdrawal of protection for protected areas in the interest of unjustifiable commercial ventures.
South Africa should be expanding not reducing its protected areas in light of the urgent need to build our resilience and adapt for climate change impacts.
The coalition defending the Mabola Protected Environment comprises the Mining and Environmental Justice Communities Network of South Africa, groundWork, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, BirdLife South Africa, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, the Association for Water and Rural Development (AWARD) and the Bench Marks Foundation.
Read more about the 2021 victory for the Mabola coalition: Constitutional Court dismisses coal mining company’s bid to start mining; and the risks posed by mining in the area: Mining in Mabola: The slow violence of environmental degradation